Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The Canary posted by Richard SeymourI don't normally plug my review segments here, but The Canarification of the Left needs to be resisted.
Monday, March 27, 2017
The whites, David Starkey observed, have become black. This was his explanation for the multiracial, working class England riots that began as a rebellion against police violence, in 2011. He was no doubt articulating a widespread anxiety about the collapse of racial distinction. Five years later, Thomas Mair would give that anxiety the force of arms.
In a 1991 article on 'The Mind of Apartheid', J M Coetzee looked at the writings of one of apartheid's major thinkers and activists, Geoffrey Cronjé, whose work covers the intersection between supremacy and separation, between 'privilege' and the unconscious. The latter's obsession was with race-mixing, with the idea that low-income whites would develop a feeling of equality with South African blacks out of their shared conditions of existence, and would engage in so much inter-racial socializing as to produce "a single South African mishmash-society".
Coetzee doesn't invoke Frantz Fanon, Octave Mannoni, Marie-Cecile Ortigues, Wulf Sachs or any of the twentieth century psychoanalysts working with/against the colonial situation (and always to a greater or lesser extent imbricated with coloniality), instead preferring to conduct his analysis along straightforward Freudian lines. And this is an interesting choice because those analysts all, from different points of view, tried to give salience to the historical, political and social bases of mental illness -- in Lacanian terms, the role of the Other. However, it is a useful point of departure for analysing what Fanon called, in a theoretical dépaysement, "the neurotic structure of colonialism". The "pathogenic nucleus" may be "wired through" the unconscious, dreams, sexuality, personal failures, etc., but it has its origin in the colonial situation. We can begin with the individual through which the neurosis is refracted, only to arrive at a "sociodiagnostics".
We can return to Cronjé momentarily, and through him return to Thomas Mair, the Britain First butcher, who engaged in the intimate, passionate slaughter of Jo Cox, one week before the Brexit vote. But what one wants is not a psychologism, but a sociodiagnostics of Mair. The displacements and disguised repetitions of colonial desire will tell us something about the symptom of 'Britishness' and the country we live in.
What is the point of psychoanalysing the colonial situation in the first place? Doesn't psychoanalysis itself have an ineradicable whiff of its colonial genealogy? Hasn't its relative silence on race, and its habitual reproduction of colonial tropes (the concept of the primitive, of regression, of the infantile native, and the background of evolutionary theory informing its more stageist iterations) been complicit in the ideological power of colonialism?
Where psychoanalysis becomes a story of progress and adaptation, of how children become successful adults, wherein the analyst is supposed to know in advance how the story reaches a happy-ever-after, then it is arguably at its most reactionary, most class-blind, most patriarchal, most colonial. Sachs and Mannoni, but not Fanon, believed in the 'dependency complex' according to which indigenous people were in some sense essentially children at the level of the psyche. Where it reduces pathology to the individual ego, or a sum of individual egos, it is at its most complicit. To an extent, psychoanalysis can't help individualising problems, because its clinic is predicated on the suffering subject making a demand for a cure from the analyst. If the analyst tried, as Sachs did, to try to make a revolutionary subject out of the analysand, he would as Jacqueline Rose put it, lock "the patient into the imaginary world of his own demands". So, however much psychoanalysis might be amenable to a wider analytics, its concepts were devised for the one-to-one cure.
But, of course, while those are all potentialities in psychoanalysis, it also has its loyalties on the other side: the side of the unconscious, of sexuality, of rebellious thoughts, and the dismantling of spurious sense. Inasmuch as it talks of development tales, it also subverts them. Inasmuch as it deals with the individual ego, it also splits it and decentres it and traces its dehiscence along a fissure made by the Other. Psychoanalysis hasn't yet been fully decolonised, but it contains at least some of the resources for its own decolonisation.
The strongest case for psychoanalysis is that it is, like marxism properly speaking, a logic of the symptom. It works with the grain of breakdown and failure and the non-sense, which is always abundantly evident in the colonial situation. If we try to situate the analysis exclusively in terms of political economy, we will miss some of that. We might be able to describe the strategic relationship of white-supremacy to capitalist production and its dysfunctions, but the strategic failures, the subjective derangements, of colonialism will not be seen. There is no way to make Thomas Mair's murder of Jo Cox make sense, but there is a way to redescribe the situation, to trace the connections, the "wiring through".
The "neurotic structure of colonialism" involved, according to Fanon, two desires: "The black man wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man." The colonial situation designates whiteness as the "rank of man," the only position from which full humanity can be assumed.
Geoffrey Cronjé was concerned, above all, to protect whiteness, and block race-mixing. He was vexed continually by the themes of contamination and purity, mixing and 'miscegenation'. He worried about a "mishmash" or "mengelmoes" of races -- the loss of the specific structure and character of races, and their reduction to an undifferentiated, pulpy mass: to shit. The low-income whites were the source of his greatest anxiety. He fretted that the whites would become black.
As with the red-hunting white-supremacists of the American South, the fear is that whites "feeling equal" with blacks, and being willing to mingle with them and marry them, will so compromise whiteness as to produce a fundamental loss of being, since from this point of view it is only whiteness that gives access to full being. Any loss of whiteness is a loss of the phallus -- "social castration" in Derek Hook's terms. But worse, if this castration is linked to the collapse of the very principle of racial distinction and intelligibility, the loss of being brings one to the point of oblivion. The image of mishmashing, for Cronjé, is an image of death.
Of course, to say that he was 'concerned', that he 'worried' and 'fretted', is an enormous euphemism. He was obsessed. Coetzee uses the term, 'obsession', in its full Freudian clinical sense. The obsessive-neurotic isn't just worried about death, but obsessively concerned with the organisation of habits and rituals to stave off death. The image of death that he has (and it will tend to be a 'he'; obsession is typically a male subject-position) is the imago of his own unacknowledged drives and desires. The prohibitions he works to preserve, pulse with proscribed desire. The ritualisation of cleanliness and non-contamination in obsessive-neurosis is a war on wants, a "counterattack upon desire" as Coetzee puts it.
One finds this obsessive structure quite a lot in colonial situations. John Barrell's classic account of Thomas De Quincey, opium-eating memoirist of the British empire, finds De Quincey compulsively projecting the horrors of his unconscious, deriving from childhood trauma but linking to the symbolic register of 19th century Orientalism, onto fantasmatic Eastern hordes. Hence, his role as an agitator and propagandist for British intervention to repress and govern the Oriental.
Thomas Mair was engaged, if nothing else, in a struggle for being.
Little is known about the murderer. We know very little about his life, his childhood, or even most of his adulthood. More is known about the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist magazines he read, the letters he wrote to them, the training manuals he bought, the newspaper clippings he kept (Breivik fascinated him), than about the texture of his everyday existence. It is said that he was a "loner" -- the police's term -- who seemingly never held down a single job, or had a romantic partner, or friends to speak of. He seems to have connected his long-term unemployment to his feelings of worthlessness, and mental health issues.
One thing that stands out in the small amount of material that there is about Mair, apart from the absences (no job, no friends, no love), is that he was a genuinely obsessive personality. His residence was kept in an extraordinarily neat and ordered condition. Inside his kitchen cupboards, The Guardian reported, "tinned food was carefully arranged in precise rows, with each label pointing in exactly the same direction". As well as stacks of impeccably tidy Nazi publications, books about Hitler and the white race, and a few Michael Burleigh histories, he kept stacks of toilet paper, neatly arranged, as if to wage war on shit. The police describe obsessive-compulsive behaviour, while neighbours say he had to scrub himself compulsively with brillo pads, sometimes until he bled. His counterattack upon desire entailed an obsession with cleanliness and contamination.
But his obsessions were also politicised very early on, cathected to the signifier of whiteness. And here, as is so often the case, he is less frightened of non-white people than of the white people who sell out, who compromise on their whiteness. Indeed, this is a staple obsession of the far right in Britain today. Tommy Robinson was quick to rush to Westminster amid the lockdown following Khalid Masood's attack, in order to declare before the fascinated cameras that "this is Islam ... this is reality. This has been going on for 1,400 years and while it's going on the police leaders and the political leaders want to invite more." His associate, an alt-right film-maker called Caolan Robertson, took the opportunity to castigated leftists and liberals for their betrayals. Former leading BNP member Mark Collett, in a classic instance of imperial projection, complains that Muslims are colonising Britain, and that liberals will sell out everything to them.
So it was with Thomas Mair. His persecution fantasy was that liberals and leftwingers had betrayed the white race. His key references were South Africa and the United States, where he felt that segregation and apartheid could have been preserved were it not for the white traitors. He seems to have long fantasised about killing a 'traitor', and his interest in Breivik could be interpreted in light of the latter's focus on murdering "cultural marxists" -- those he labelled "category A and B traitors".
But while the Guardian described him as a very "slow-burning" killer, his fantasies long in germination, escalation is arguably built into the obsessive-neurotic structure. The counterattack upon desire is experienced as a struggle against death, for being; but it is in fact an attack on life, on the Real of the drives. The more one ritualises the warding off of death, therefore, the closer one comes to death, and the more one has to fight. The life of an obsessive is an anxious one, and the circulation of libido in perpetuating this struggle is likely to manifest as depression.
Mair seems to have found some temporary respite from depression in volunteering as a gardener, but this didn't last. When checking into an alternative therapy centre for his depression one evening, he was told to make an appointment and come back the next day. This suggested that his symptom was breaking down. Instead of attending the centre the next day, he hunted Jo Cox, a pro-migrant centre-left member of parliament. He stabbed her in the chest with a dagger, shot her twice in the head and once in the chest with a sawn-off, and then stabbed her again, repeatedly.
As he attacked, he shouted, in an evident reference to the EU referendum: "Britain first, this is for Britain. Britain will always come first. We are British independence. Make Britain independent." In court, he gave his name as "Death to traitors!"
Even if we knew more about Mair's childhood and whatever traumatogenic kernel that was subsequently chained to the signifier of whiteness, a "sociodiagnostics" must look for the pathogenic nucleus of his obsession in the structures of British society. Indeed, it may be a misnomer to say that trauma was 'subsequently' cathected to whiteness. One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that trauma need not have any basis in real life events: it can be rooted in fantasy, which is to say it can be rooted in the cultural imaginary received from the Other.
In a viral video from late 2011, shortly after the England riots, a woman is filmed on a tram in Croydon complaining about the tram being filled with "a load of black people, and a load of fucking Polish" . "My Britain," she declaims to horrified passengers, "is fuck all now". In his analysis of this video, Paul Gilroy links the outburst to the complex he has designated "postcolonial melancholia" -- a melancholia associated with the unmourned loss, not just of real possessions, but of fantasies of limitless being, of global omnipotence, which served to shroud lack. Noting that the racially abusive woman, Emma West, was possibly self-medicating, he refers to her depression, her background of mental illness, and then asks "why, if Emma was mentally ill, her illness would have presented itself in this particular set of symptoms? Why was it that her evident unhappiness, palpable anger and bitter resentment could be articulated spontaneously as a heartfelt commentary on race, nationality and belonging?" The class injuries which are disarticulated from any wider sense of class belonging in her discourse -- she is no scrounger, she insists -- likewise somehow segue smoothly into an argument about black and white.
In the immediate political background of the outburst was David Cameron's intervention against "state multiculturalism" in favour of "muscular liberalism" -- a trope that gained ground during the 'war on terror' and the backlash against multiculturalism among some of the New Labour intelligentsia. The muscular liberal believes, in short, in a hierarchy of cultures and 'values, in which 'the West' is the proprietary holder of the best. For Cameron, this self-evident truth risked being repressed by a tyrannical multicultural perspective that allowed non-white people to get away with "objectionable views" while white people were hauled over the coals. And so, he put it starkly: "to belong here is to believe in these things". Since these things turn out to be semantically empty 'values', which are hardly specific to Britain, one could infer that what Cameron really insisted on as a condition of belonging was in the underlying presupposition that Britain, as part of the West, was the historical bearer of a superior culture.
Cameron had presented a racial fable in which whites were victimised and non-whites able to get away with murder, as it were. But the unconscious of his discourse was its unmentioned coloniality, the roots of this cultural hierarchy and its underlying racial metaphysics in the British Empire and its ways of knowing the native. Here was a displacement, a disguised repetition, of colonial desire: to restore the full sense and authority of whiteness, to establish a kind of national monotheism around its munification, amid British military and economic decline.
The eroticism of Mair's overkill, the physical proximity he chose as he set out seemingly to physically annihilate his victim, is hard to miss. It suggests a passionate identification with what he was trying to destroy: a counterattack upon desire.
Purity and the fear of contamination have been touched on, metaphorically, in several recent reactionary campaigns, from building walls to taking control. On the day that Jo Cox was murdered, the 'Leave' campaigning organisation, 'Leave.EU', produced a widely criticised poster showing an image of refugees trying to cross the border into Slovenia, with the slogan, 'Breaking Point' superimposed on it. Eliding the difference between refugees and migrant workers, it suggested, "we must break free of the EU and take control of our borders". The visual strikingly linked the idea of a breaking point, to the arrival of a phalanx brown-skinned refugees, many of them likely to be Muslims.
This was a nodal point in the campaign, but hardly unique in its tone. The breaking point was insidiously linked to public services, especially the NHS, which has been pushed into severe debt across the country by austerity policies. It was linked to the idea of overpopulation, and the loss of landscapes. The Daily Telegraph lamented, citing Chris Grayling, that "Britain’s Green Fields Will Have to Be Built Over to Provide New Homes for Migrants". This distantly echoed the melancholic poetics of Philip Larkin -- "And That Will Be England Gone". And it was linked to the idea that Europe was in existential peril, not because of any crisis tendencies that might be being worked out in European capitalism, but because it was weak and decadent and surrounded by "swarms" and "hotbeds" of hostile forces. Turkey turned out to be a quilting point in all this. It was the status of Turkey's possible EU accession, the imagined arrival of millions of Turkish migrants to leech of the NHS and occupy British jobs, and the idea of Turkey as a vector through which the phobic racial other would arrive, that gave the campaign its final boost in its final week as Conservative support for 'Remain' tumbled.
It is important to stress how compromised the leaders of the 'Remain' campaign were in the face of this campaign. It spoke in a language they had validated: they were mainly austerians and 'muscular liberals' in the Cameronite mould. It was Ed Balls who first mainstreamed panic about unskilled Turkish workers taking British jobs. It was Cameron who had spoken of a "swarm" of refugees and given resentful nationalism a mandarin patina. It Theresa May who had agitated against the threat to cohesion, public services and employment from migration. It was the government who had, no doubt in some measure negotiating with its own right-wing, who had mounted a stout campaign against "benefit tourism". It is too easy to ascribe to this form of reaction a kind of befuddled "white working class" upsurge, but this is scapegoating. Research shows us that resentful nationalism is for all classes, and is most attractive to those who have been on a downward trajectory -- losing ground, as it were. But the compensations of 'Britishness' to which they are passionately attached, and its metonymic associations with 'Englishness' and above all 'whiteness', had to be produced.
Nonetheless, the idea of a breaking point, through the master-signifier of whiteness, metaphorised and operated on an ensemble of griefs and grievances, class injuries, and trauma (real or imaginary). What was at breaking point, it might be suggested, was the symptom of Britishness: the melancholic symptom which preserved a little bit of colonial jouissance while forestalling a confrontation with the real-world loss of the colonies, and the fantasy loss of omnipotence.
And for Thomas Mair, that was very clearly the case: his symptom, the rituals through which he prevented the contamination of whiteness and averted the confrontation with his own lack, was clearly at breaking point. Time had run out: he acted out his fantasy, to prevent its loss.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Acts of violence posted by Richard Seymour
It makes no sense.
How could it possibly? You slam a fast-moving car into a group of people, crash the vehicle, clamber out and dash toward the Houses of Parliament with two huge knives, stabbing a police officer, before being quite predictably and efficiently shot to death. In a densely peopled, heavily policed, high-security tourist zone, where the odds of actually making it anywhere near the parliament building were negligible, and where the only likely victims were those who actually died: school students, passers-by, police officers. Four dead, nearly thirty injured. For what net gain, to what end?
This was a lone wolf suicide attack. What distinguishes it from other suicide attacks, globally, is its low level of resources, technology and sophistication. There is also the attacker, Khalid Masood, born Adrian Russell Ajao to an English mother and a Nigerian father, and a convert. The literature on suicide attackers has tended to find that they are likely to be better off than the reference population, highly educated and altruistic in motive -- the level of planning and commitment involved necessitates this. But, while the 7/7 attackers arguably fit this profile, a number of jihadis in British society over the last few years have demonstrated a slightly different pattern.
The Woolwich killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were working class British men of Nigerian background, who converted in their late teens. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, was a working class British man of Jamaican background who had been through the prison system and converted. It is not known when Khalid Masood converted, but it is clear that he went through the criminal justice system many times, garnering convictions for serious violent offences -- one of which was reportedly incurred after he was subjected to a racist provocation. We are still working with the bare minimum of information, but it is possible that conversion was his way out of a pattern of chaotic violence, for a while.
But the role of conversion here, one way or another, is probably quite important. In the wake of the collapse of political Blackness, a contingent form of coalition built around groups of people whose experiences converged at a particular moment after the fall of the colonial empires, race-making has taken a new turn. Islam, you might say, is the new Black. The racialisation of Islam, and all the apparatuses of violence and surveillance built up around it, seem to have created a situation in which some people want Islam to do the same sort of work as political Blackness, forming a unity among people across continents, and among Britons whose parents or grandparents migrated across continents.
In this way, the violence, condescension and exclusions of Britain's racial order can be linked to violence against others in the Umma, and a kind of transnational identity can somehow be formed around that. It's easy to see why this might appeal to people of a certain generation, who have lived through the death of political Blackness -- the trauma of racial injury is perpetuated, but the compensating fantasy of community provided by such coalitions is lost. There is, though, a structural impossibility here, because global race-making processes just aren't overlapping in that way; there is more fragmentation than unification. The al-Muhajirouns and Saviour Sects and al-Ghoraabas and so on, who appeal to the most criminalised and reactionary men among Britain's racial minorities, arguably represent the impossibilist wing of Islamism; just as Thomas Mair was an impossibilist lone wolf of "Britain First" nationalism. There, at least, would be somewhere to begin making sense: with impossibility.
We can admit that there is enough humiliation and anguish in everyday life, even if you aren't on the losing side of white-supremacy, to fuel a lot of violent rage. Research suggests that most people have experienced violent, murderous fantasies. The fact that most people never try to act on these, let alone act out something so spectacularly and indiscriminately bloody, is in part a function of forms of political and social embodiment that, however flimsy, mostly sustain the prohibition on violence and redirect that rage elsewhere.
On that basis, we could simply take the capacity for murderous violence, which we see acted out everyday in this country, for granted. We could follow the literature on suicide attacks, and analyse this tactic along rational choice lines, as a logical tactic within the political purview of jihadism. However, Masood's attack is almost the opposite of a tactic -- it is a means to thwart tactics, to disrupt planning. It may be linked to a definable political objective, but what it seeks is the unpredictable: it solicits chaos, panic, the undefinable. It makes no sense.
It seems, on the face of it, quite different from another act of violence on the same day, directed by the US air force against a school near Raqqa. That attack, which killed thirty people, was no doubt approved by President Trump, but also devised in line with long-standing bureaucratic imperatives, plans and strategies developed by the Pentagon. No doubt, it was a tactic choreographed as part of a wider campaign intended to win a strategic objective toward winning the war against Daesh. A state murder carried out within a certain jurisprudence, along the lines and trajectories of military bureaucratic decision-making, is surely not the same thing as a suicide attack. It makes too much sense.
That, at least, is what the ideology of war and terrorism tells us. The point of 'race' -- and the ideology of terror/war is integral to current race-making practices -- is precisely to make a spurious sort of sense out of violence and exploitation. The ideology of terror/war tells us that the violence of imperialist states is constrained within reason, justice and humanity, while that of its opponents is nefarious, groundless, unconstrained by law or decency. In a sense, that ideology merely re-states Albert Memmi's dictum that the colonial can have his arsenals, but the discovery of a rusty weapon among the colonised is a just cause for punishment. But there is always a point in the life of white-supremacy and imperialism where the sense-making apparatuses breakdown. And it is the failures and nonsense of this system which are most enlightening. They can be opportunities to change, or they can produce blind panic and grotesque, violent reactions.
And in fact, US imperialism doesn't make sense; it doesn't add up. There is, for example, no mystery about the fact that its bombings raids and invasions always exceed any plausible strategic purpose. Drone attacks murder dozens of non-combatants, and they are instantly reclassified as 'militants'. Iraq was devastated, systematically, defiled-city-by-defiled-city, with everything that could support human life being pointlessly demolished, perverse institutions of torment being set up in their place and new forms of statecraft built around sectarian parties, death squads and televised show trials. Afghanistan experienced even higher rates of aerial bombardment, coupled with a ridiculous campaign of crop poisoning (supposedly to stop the opium trade which, of course it didn't), while a statelet rump composed of warlords and patriarchs and religious fundamentalists was mobilised behind a useless war against other warlords, patriarchs and religious fundamentalists. In both contexts, groups of US soldiers repeatedly went on racist killing rampages, deliberately hunting and killing non-combatants.
There is something frighteningly volatile and supererogatory about these situations. Yes, of course, there were strategic objectives; yes, of course, there were things to gain; yes, of course, capitalist imperialism has its own imperatives which have nothing to do with reason, justice and humanity. And there is no such thing as a perfect strategy. The world is never completely lucid, never transparent, and there is no point from which totalised knowledge is possible. Yet the consistency with which US military ventures have produced bloody chaos for, predictably, no net gain, is not an accident. And Trump, though he is worse than his predecessors, is not in this respect undertaking a sharp departure from established policy.
All of this -- imperialist chaos, securitarian crackdowns, and demented lone wolf blowback -- is obviously not reducible to a relationship between coloniser and colonised: but it can't be abstracted from that relationship, with is still with us today.
"The ghost of the former colonial subject haunts (without their being aware of it) relationships among whites who have never left Europe." -- Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban.
In Ellis Sharp's short story from 1991, Dead Iraqis, the charred, scorched bodies of Iraq take a strange detour. The surrealists used to talk of dépaysement -- dislocation, disorientation -- as a way of describing how things go astray, are taken out of their usual habitat, and in so doing demonstrate capacities that it was never clear they had. Travel was one way of achieving a kind of dépaysement, breaking old habits, forming new ways of being. But wherever the traveler goes, as the surrealists knew all too well, the colonial agent may not be far behind. In Sharp's story, the bodies come back with him. They are taken out of their habitat, and appear on the kitchen floors of English householders. They don't haunt, so much as get in the way. They're a nuisance.
Mannoni's observation was based on the strange fact that the dream life of white Europeans who had never visited the colonies, was often populated by black colonial subjects: one wonders whom white British subjects dream of today, whether in fact the spectre of 'the Muslim' doesn't haunt their dream-life. It is not surprising that the ghosts of colonialism and a certain type of white-supremacist sovereignty which passed with it, are still with us: trauma passes on, as abundant clinical evidence shows, intergenerationally. But how? Mannoni's account, which for good reasons was criticised sharply by Fanon, is unsustainable. Prospero and Caliban represents an early and only partially successful attempt by Mannoni to analyse and decolonise himself, an attempt which would go on being a work in progress, and it still contains a lot of unusable colonial tropes. But it has the considerable virtue of stressing the nonsense, the breakdown, the failure of colonial life -- he was writing as a former colonial official in the aftermath of the French genocide of the Malagasy, the very experience that led him to seek his first analysis.
In particular, what Mannoni brought to the fore, which Fanon drew upon, was the pattern of violent transference in the colonial relationship. “The observer,” Mannoni observe, is “repelled by the thoughts he encounters in his own mind, and it seems to him that they are the thoughts of the people he is observing.” The European "personality type," had discovered through its dépaysement, its dislocation in the colonial relationship, new qualities, a new inferiority complex, which it transferred onto "the negro" -- making the colonised its symptom. This imaginarisation of the colonial relationship was organised by "racial differences" which, having "absolutely no meaning in the natural order," nonetheless had a real material, social basis, and persisted beyond all sense.
And, he argued, this logic had become so enfolded into the existing psychic tendencies of Europeans that it would persist beyond even the demise of racism.
Racism is far from dead, and race persists, like an automaton. Sheldon George, in his book on race, slavery and trauma, argues that the discourse of race today is organised by an "automaton of racial signifiers". This striking metaphor suggests that one might be, as Lacan put it, the "slave of a discourse," in which, or under which, our place is "already inscribed at birth".
Whereas Mannoni and Fanon, both of them indebted to Lacan, argued that the idea of the 'native' or 'savage' provided an image (imago) of the European subject's own drives, George suggests that the image itself is given its place and meaning by signifiers. Taking his cue from Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, who has provided by far the most rigorous updating of Fanon's analysis, he argues that in a racial order of white-supremacy we are slaves to the signifier of whiteness. This signifier, introjected into the unconscious, promises a plenitude of being and enjoyment for white subjects, establishing whiteness as the pinnacle of being. But this depends, necessarily, on the non-being, or lack, of the black subject.
The signifier of whiteness, of course, is a fetish -- like the phallus. The logic of the phallus is that you either have it, or you don't; women are assumed not to have it, and men are assumed not to be without it. Likewise, whiteness is something you are assumed to have, or not: black people are assumed not to have it, white people are assumed not to be without it. And as with the phallus, the truth is that no one has it, because it is a fetishisation and objectification of power and being, qualities which are intrinsically relational. So, the signifier of whiteness, this fetish, is the pivot around which a certain kind of objectification of black bodies around contingent facts of skin, hair, bone length and physiognomy, is organised.
This analysis brings George's position quite close to that of Mannoni and Fanon, albeit within in a new perspective that foregrounds the symbolic, rather than the imaginary. In the context of slavery, George argues, black bodies were reduced to an exchange value, and a jouissance-value. Slaves were constantly confronted with their lack, their not-having, and denied access to the fantasies of being through which white masters covered over their own lack. This relationship freed white masters to engage in shocking acts of violence, freeing up the “evil desires that agitate around the internal emptiness characteristic of the subject,” since the denial of black subjectivity meant that their shaming gaze, and their testimony, could have no effect. The jouissance of whiteness was a jouissance of plenty, without limits, procured through the production of black destitution.
If, at first, black subjects had to develop alternative fantasies of being through religion, which guaranteed that there was a fragment of God's being in every slave, and that all could be redeemed, George argues that after the trauma of slavery, race itself began to provide certain satisfactions for African Americans. It became possible to identify with race as itself both a confrontation with and a displacement of lack. Personal lack, which is universal, was conflated with the slave's suffering and trauma. One could come to believe that it would be redeemed through a redemption of the race, even while acknowledging the evil of race. Ironically, says George, those who took this step bound themselves, ambivalently, through the signifiers of race to the historical trauma of slavery. The automaton of signifiers, he argues, perpetuates, repeats this terrible traumatic jouissance, a repetition which will not lose its grip until race, and its ability to organise both our life chances and our politics, does.
But that also raises the question of what is going on with whiteness, when the connection to the racial past established through this automaton of signifiers is disavowed? The answer to this is never straightforward, since all racial identifications materialise in different ways at different times. But repetition follows an implacable logic, and I want to suggest that for those out on the imperial frontiers, raping and butchering Afghans and Iraqis for fun, before returning to the United States to live comfortably disturbed lives, one of the things they are doing is repeating a relationship established in colonialism and slavery. And it would be worth thinking about how much the apparatuses of the American state, built through struggles over just these relationships, continues to circulate that kind of jouissance, such that sense can break down repeatedly in imperial ventures.
The suicide attacker, as Richard Boothby has written, short-circuits this relationship between master and slave. The uneven dialectic is based on the formula: your freedom or your life. But it is uneven because, if you choose the former, you can't have either. In a suicide attack, the attacker abruptly proves willing to give up her life to end the stand-off; turning her corporeality, her body, into a weapon. Jacqueline Rose made the point, writing about suicide attackers some years ago, that every such attack is "an act of passionate identification -- you take your enemy with you". Which could be interpreted as meaning, you take a bit of their whiteness, their being, with you. You claim a share of being, seemingly always precarious, always endangered, through death.
Lone wolf suicide attackers may not kill many people compared to the apparatuses of military full-spectrum dominance, or militarised policing. But they evoke a particular horror because they upend the (racialised) political and strategic calculations through which this assymetrical stand-off was assumed to be manageable. It is the precise opposite of 'risk-transfer war', in which the eroticised embodiment of death and killing is eliminated through drone abstractions, and policed out of national imaginaries both by borders and security apparatuses and by the working of ideology. Facebook users were grimly amused, during the fall-out from the Westminster attack, to notice people from far afield marking themselves as 'safe'. Only a very small number of people in this world are actually entirely safe; we are all continually living the crisis, to a greater or lesser extent, a precarious situation in which our lives can be blown apart by recession, austerity, violent crime, family breakdown, or a major social conflict. Only when people start being murdered is it possible to think of oneself as 'safe'. The appearance of the dead, the unpredictable irruption of a form of violence that belongs elsewhere -- what ITN called "Baghdad-style violence" in the wake of the Woolwich attack -- reminds us forcefully of the ideology according to which we are indeed safe.
But this abstraction itself, Boothby notes, is like a "pure tincture" of the Freudian death-drive. Rather than being eliminated through repression, it is chemically concentrated in the clarity of the remote aerial visuals beamed back to the Situation Room in Washington. Talal Asad, writing about suicide attacks, wondered if what horrifies us most about such actions is the seemingly "limitless pursuit of freedom", even a freedom to carry out marauding, unconstrained attacks on pedestrians, children, anyone in the way of an almost arbitrary path of destruction. What the suicide attacker brings into stark relief, from that point of view, is exactly what has been repressed and distilled in the 'war on terror'. The limitless jouissance of the master.
It doesn't make sense. It shouldn't make sense. The sense-making of white-supremacy and imperialism, which is not a one-way street but a relationship, is continually breaking down. The immediate, mantra-like revival of deadening slogans about "values" and "stoicism" and "pride" which will "never be defeated", is an attempt to restore, through sheer nonsense, through absolute meaningless waffle, the apparatuses of sense-making. But their breakdown, rather than being a cause of panic, could be an opportunity for change. We who didn't choose this violent, chaotic, oppressive relationship, are still inhabiting it, still driven by the automaton. But we don't have to be.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
This crisis obviously affects freelance writers, as it both transforms and in some ways diminishes their opportunities to make a regular living, a state of affairs which services like Patreon hope to capitalise on. But the model that Patreon works on is one in which you offer readers special perks -- early access, sneak peeks, first sight, etc -- which justifies their payment. It depends on the idea that people pay for services; that, even if it's never clear how these perks could be 'worth the money', you have to offer something as a quid pro quo, to make it part of a system of economic value.
"Woman Does Not Exist" posted by Richard SeymourChimamanda Adichie is a liberal feminist. She has never claimed to be anything else. Her coordinates are those of an ideology that has already been mainstreamed, viz. that gender socialisation and male privilege represent serious and iniquitous obstacles to the success and achievement of women. Gender, as she put it to Channel 4 News, is about sociology, not biology.
This is all, up to a point, completely unobjectionable. However, the fact that Adichie's terms led her, when queried, to seemingly dispute the status of trans women as women, is not an accident. Indeed, the fact that Adichie clearly has no malice in this, and seemingly has no desire to deny anyone rights, is indicative of how much it is the discourse that is limiting.
But Adichie is also far too good a writer, far too good at smoothing over the cracks that is, to let the discourse's symptoms appear too obviously. It is really her defenders, some of whom were far worse than she on this question, whose slips are most interesting. Just as an example, I want to mention this widely shared Feminist Current piece. If you read it, I don't think I will need to underline the point too much: it is, symptomatically, all over the place, sliding between the uncertain terms of sex and gender. It cannot decide whether the problem is with the idea that transwomen are "literally women" or the idea that they are "female". The strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender, one strongly supported in most transphobic forms of feminism, is seen here to collapse. Indeed, I think it is destined to.
One reason why transphobic forms of feminism gain an exaggerated influence, I want to suggest, is that they insinuate themselves into a serious analytical deadlock of this already mainstreamed feminism that I have referred to. Specifically, the strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender. In this partitioning of the sexed being, sex is the organic, the purely given, while gender is the social, and thus the domain of choice. This separation was, initially, made possible by the innovation of trans technologies and treatments, but it was taken up by feminists in the Second Wave. The problem it seemed to solve was that it made a sharp distinction between the accidents of biology and the huge apparatuses of exploitation and exclusion and violence that are pinned to this contingent facts.
But some radical feminists, like Monica Wittig, never had much respect for or interest in this opposition. Wittig's argument was that sex itself was the problem, the foundation of violence. Sex, she insisted, was more a type of relationship than a type of being. From this point of view, to reduce it to its organic substratum, which is always sedimented with power and discourse, is to participate in the essentialising strategies of sexist domination. But that is not the argument that was successfully mainstreamed, and it is not the argument that began to influence media presentation and policymaking. So, we have inherited a discourse according to which sexism exploits contingent facts of biology and physical reproduction, linking it through socialisation and the allocation of relative privilege, to the production of gender.
The problems with this discourse as a kind of 'common sense' begin with its deployment in a certain kind of 'Lean In' feminism. Both 'socialisation' and 'male privilege' tend to act as reified blob concepts within what I'm short-handedly calling liberal feminism. The problems with 'privilege' as a term are well-rehearsed and I won't go through them here. Suffice to say, it is one that we can only use sous rature, under erasure, while waiting for something more adequate The problems with 'socialisation', though, are less clear and less commonly talked about. Because, one thing that trans politics shows us, is that many many people resist their socialisation. Indeed, isn't that also, in a way, what feminist politics shows us? Would we be capable of talking about liberation at all, if we didn't all in some way resist socialisation?
And that raises the question, of course, of what we mean by socialisation. At most, we gather that somehow the way we are treated leaves an imprint on us. It's clear that social structures get into our souls, as it were. Somehow we are constituted by them, and yet at the same time we reject them. Somehow we are made into girls and boys by them, and yet somehow we never quite fully adapt to those identifications. Somehow we are split subjects, in our relationship to our socialisation. And sometimes, it fails completely. Sometimes, those the system wants to make into boys, and treats as boys, and gives every incentive and warning to be boys, turn out not to be boys; sometimes those assigned as girls, turn out not to be girls. Trans is a type of solution to what one is not, an art of becoming whose starting point is the breakdown of socialisation.
And all of this is to say that between the false oppositions of sex and gender, there is something else, another level of analysis that is missing. That level, I suggest, is unconscious desire.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Smash the Twittering machine posted by Richard Seymour
Now this long-standing tradition of paranoid readings on the Left has been conjoined to the Twittering machine. The attack on Jacobin -- those snarky hipster social democrat Berniebro reformist liberal class-reductionist fancy typesetting designer leftist imperialist cop loving etc etc -- resembles nothing so much as what China Miéville has called "punitive schwarmerei".
The outrage, over a tweet, isolated from a series of live tweets reporting a speech by the Indian Marxist Nivedita Majumdar, is completely out of proportion to any specific disagreement with its content. The tweet contains a reference to "intersectional theory" trying to undermine Marxism by displacing the foundational, determining role of class.
No doubt, some of the nuance was lost in being condensed for tweet form. Even in that context, however, it is clear that Majumdar wasn't dismissing intersectionality as a trope, let alone downgrading the political salience of gender, race or sexuality. It was stating a position which, with greater or lesser sophistication and nuance, is probably the default among marxists, viz. that class is more fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism than other oppressions. I don't really agree with this argument, but it is hardly an outrageous position.
Most people responded as if the tweet was standalone, though clearly numbered and threaded, and as if it was a Jacobin editorial statement, though the thread made it clear that it wasn't. Far more importantly, they reacted as if what had been written was politically beyond the pale. As if it was outrageous, shocking, disgusting, that anyone would think that "intersectional theory" is anti-Marxist, or that class is more fundamental to capitalism than the other oppressions bound up with it. As if, moreover, theoretical discussion was reducible to a political instrumentality, so that to assign to class a foundational role at the level of theory must result in a direct diminution of 'non-class' struggles at the level of everyday politics.
To reiterate, one can disagree with this view without sharing the extraordinary, libidinised reactions of those calling it "disgusting," or claiming that Jacobin thinks that gay rights should be dropped from the agenda, or expressing outrage that Jacobin has yet again had to be "called out" or "confronted" on its "shit". One can, for example, think that "intersectional theory" is a straw figure, and that no such cohesive, univocal theoretical entity exists. One can align with any number of theoretical inflections of historical materialism which assign a more "fundamental", determining role to oppressions -- for example, social reproduction theory, or Roediger & Esch's "production of difference" model. But it's hard to see these theoretical differences as being that exciting.
There is, nonetheless, a grumbling in some quarters that Jacobin must have known what they were doing, and if they didn't foresee how it would appear, then they were unprofessional. Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate 'likes' and 'retweets'. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.
Therefore, the question is: is there any way of wording a point like that made by Majumdar, in 140 characters, which would not have led these people to react in exactly the way they did? For quite a large number of their assailants, the problem was merely that someone, somewhere had besmirched the name of 'intersectionality'. For others, it was their own projections about Berniebros and such. Others -- and we know how this works -- joined in without seeming entirely sure what the problem was. None of this really amounts to an engagement even with what was in the isolated tweet, let alone the speech being reported on. A secondary question: is there any way of wording a response to all of this that wouldn't sound defensive or double outrageous to some people? I suspect the answer is 'no'. Once the wheels are turning, the train doesn't stop until it becomes a trainwreck.
This problem can surely only be experienced, ruminated on, and diagnosed so many times before we take the hint. At a certain level, and to a certain extent, Twitter is the organisation of stupidity, malice, paranoia and narrow-mindedness. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of machine to which we can take a Luddite hammer; not the sort of factory we can burn to the ground. We can only find ways to work with the grain of it, use it, or refuse it.
I don't want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate 'timeline'. But the 'mentions' column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they're entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email -- meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.
Wednesday, March 08, 2017
The Left Needs Feminism posted by Richard SeymourI wrote this for Strike Mag about two and a half years ago and republish it here on International Women's Day, and on the occasion of the women's strike. I would change a few things now, but not the snark about 'allyship' and 'male feminism', and not the emphasis on the fact that the old Brit left's comprehensive failure on gender politics, its refusal to take feminism seriously, contributed to its failure to meet the capitalist crisis creatively.
The Left Needs Feminism – by Richard Seymour
Every now and again, one catches an article by a sweet-natured, well-meaning, often gaunt and gentle-looking beta-male, explaining why men need feminism. And they are so, so precious. Be a feminist so that you can cry, so that you can be compassionate, so that you can be into cooking, and watch My Little Pony without embarrassment. If this doesn’t make you want to vomit into your own mouth, then I question your integrity and that of your parents.
Perhaps this is unkind. These articles also call one to a basic level of self-reflexivity, which is always a desideratum; and their demand that you ‘check your privilege’ can be useful. Shorn of the pleas to emote, and let emote, the desire to examine and take a share of responsibility for the micro-politics of gender can only be positive. Not only that but, as bell hooks suggested, the success of feminism depends on winning over men; if only women could be convinced of feminist analysis, it would stand little chance of succeeding politically, and could be comfortably ignored rather than provoking a backlash.
The problem is that the macro-politics can be lost in what usually turns out to be an individualised analysis in which the male desire to be an ‘ally’ or (Jesus fucking Christ) a ‘male feminist’ is both ratified by individual behaviour, and ultimately explained in terms of individual conscience and suffering. Not only that, but it leaves expediently nebulous the status of the term ‘feminism’. Hugo Schwyzer much?
I propose to re-pivot this whole question onto a different axis, and ask: can the Left get anywhere without feminism? And, how should male activists respond to the answer?
By now it is clear enough that we are amid a fourth wave of feminism. In the anglophone countries, this is driven by a particular demographic – 18-29 year old women, usually social media adepts. It has its own particular concerns, some of which are inherited from the third wave: media representations, the micro-politics of #everydaysexism, and the delicate politics of (class, racial, national, sexual) difference among women. Emblematising the latter concern, the term ‘intersectionality’ is at the fulcrum of contemporary feminist debates and the attempts, particularly by black feminists and women from the global south, not to be squeezed out of the emerging debates.
The question of what to do about this is not merely a tactical question prompted by the conjuncture. The fact of the global women’s insurgency is of huge significance, but it presents no surety of the future salience of feminism. The fact is that women, and women’s bodies, have actually been central to the dominant political narratives of the last decade or so, and are disproportionately leaned on in the context of austerity politics.
In the ‘war on terror’, women were used to provide what Zillah Eisenstein calls a ‘sexual decoy’, conscripted to war narratives in order to obscure the fundamentally masculinist nature of the imperialist drive under Bush the Younger, as well as to provide a vaguely progressive-sounding rationale for racist, Islamophobic repression. This purloined ‘feminism’ was always rather thin. Neither Malalai Joya nor Malala Youzafszai could be comfortably assimilated into such imperialist narratives; and in the imperialist countries themselves, women’s groups were generally in the anti-war camp. Nonetheless, the gender-conservative thrust of such war fables should be spelled out. The argument, then as now, has been that women in ‘the West’ have essentially ‘made it’. They have reached, through their achievement of the vote and the ability of a few of their number to scale the summits of industry and politics, the zenith of civilisation. Everything else is downhill. The only thing to do, in this context, would be to defend what has already been gained (against Muslims, chiefly), and rally to the Pentagon and the State Department as the sanctified defenders of women’s liberation.
The global recession has since changed the context and valence of such appeals. When the recession hit, it was women who suffered first and most. When the austerity solution was pioneered, it was clear that the effects – since a central component of it is an assault on the social wage, which covers the invisible labour of reproduction still disproportionately carried out by women – would fall harder on women. Increasingly, state occupants such as David Cameron fall back on the idea that ‘the family’ (meaning the unacknowledged labour of women) can replace the welfare state. This is not a plea to go back to the ‘male breadwinner’ model in any simple way: the idea is that women continue to participate in the labour market, and indeed should do so more eagerly given the penury of living on welfare. In essence, women should work more for less; thus, some of the costs of the recession can be allocated according to a moral economy in which women are deemed most blameful, and least deserving. In this context, the fusion of Islamophobia and nationalism takes on a new role, allowing the problem of women’s servitude to be represented as a pathology of foreign dogma, rather than a structural feature of advanced, neoliberal capitalism.
This is merely to mention a couple of the ways in which gendered politics has been essential to the forms of political domination, to repression, imperialism and exploitation, in the last decade or so. It is merely to gesture at the fact that politics can hardly be done without confronting the huge, invidious fact of women’s oppression; merely to hint at the material circumstances from which the fourth wave has emerged. So, how well has the Left acquitted itself in this context?
‘Manarchists’, or ‘brocialists’: does it matter what we call them? The fact is that there is something particularly incongruous about men of the Left, whether they are George Galloway, or ‘Comrade Delta’, or their many apologists and acolytes, or (in the case of Delta) the institutional forms that defend them, who betray their ostensibly egalitarian ideals with sexist behaviour. And in fact, the cited cases are merely the prominent tips of the chauvinist iceberg. From the horizontal networks of Occupy, to the more traditionally hierarchical organisations of the far left, case after case of sexist abuse has come up in which ingrained assumptions or institutional pressures led to perpetrators being protected.
To be absolutely clear: this is not more serious than the problem of sexism in the wider society; it is probably far less prevalent on the Left than on the Right. It is simply that the Left does not exist in splendid isolation from the oppressive society in which it seeks to operate. It is immersed in the world and is susceptible to its pressures. Sexism is not peculiar to the Left, but it is a problem for the Left, relative to its normative aspirations, and its aspiration to grow and assemble an alliance of forces capable of challenging capitalism.
The fact is that the discourse of a section of the Left around recent controversies about sexism is at its best strikingly conservative. In its most ostensibly serious form, this involves claiming that the focus on feminism and intersectionality is just identity politics, and a distraction from the real issue of class. This totally ignores the fact that, as feminists such as Silvia Federici, Selma James and Avtar Brah (or more recently Abbie Bakan and Brenna Bhandar) have shown, our understanding of class, labour and surplus value is totally transformed once the realities of gender (and race, and so on) are assimilated. This is hardly irrelevant to the age of austerity and the attacks on the social wage. What those talking about class in the unreconstructed sense want is not to defend class politics, but to conserve class as a kind of identity politics for a specific layer of white men.
This is an inherently minoritarian approach; white men, no matter what the television says, are not the majority of people on the planet by a considerable distance. They may in general hold more power and influence than others, but they cannot by themselves assemble the movement necessary to challenge capitalism. They are not necessarily even the most politically militant sections of the working class. Gramsci’s point about building hegemonic alliances holds. No authentic alliance is possible in which oppressed groups are expected to hold their tongue, and submerge their own interests and demands – indeed, using the language of intersectionality, this is exactly the problem that fourth wave feminists have been confronting.
The Left needs feminism, then, because it urgently needs to update its epistemological assumptions in order to analyse the situation in which it finds itself, and because it needs to be able to fuse together the interests of all the oppressed and exploited in order to be adequate to the political circumstance. But to get to grips with this challenge, it needs to combat its most retrograde elements, those who in fact represent at worst a pungent form of rape culture, or who are at best the left representatives of the backlash culture.
Either that or you can weep over My Little Pony. Your call.